08 August 2009

Making U.S. Iran policy

The New York Times Magazine for 2 August 2008 contains a lengthy and intriguing article by columnist Roger Cohen on the making of United States policy towards Iran, first published on 30 July. It was written by Cohen following a series of in-depth conversations with senior officials at the State Department and the National Security Council, before and after he visited Tehran (see full article here.)

Cohen notes that the Bush Administration’s ideologically driven axis-of-evil approach to Iran had failed, and that Tehran had prospered by expanding its regional influence and was accelerating its nuclear program. The Obama Administration came to office believing it was time to seek normalization through a new, cooler look at a nation critical to U.S. strategic interests — from advancing Israeli-Arab peace negotiations to a successful withdrawal from Iraq.

The fraudulent Iranian election outcome and the subsequent turmoil presented the Administration with a difficult dilemma – the choice between continuing its policy of strategic outreach to the regime, or questioning its legitimacy in the name of human rights. One of Cohen’s informants told him that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been pushing for a harder line soon after the 12 June election, and had been supported in this by Vice President Joe Biden, but they had not prevailed. Hillary Clinton’s approach is no surprise – her talk of “crippling sanctions” simply reprises an approach she was touting in April, but as discussed in Iran: Sanctions are in the air, this is a seriously dumb idea.

Fortunately, Clinton and Biden did not prevail, and the policy continues to be one of a cautious striving for an opportunity to engage. On the basis of his conversations Cohen reports that the offer of direct engagement runs very deep with President Obama:

He’s driving Iran policy. The Iran gambit lies close to the core of his refashioned global strategy, America’s “new era of engagement.”

Cohen’s article contains a detailed description of the bizarre journey which took senior US diplomat Dennis Ross from the intensely pro-Israeli Washington Institute for Near East Policy to the opaquely titled and stealthily announced office of Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, and thence (that not having worked out) to the position of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region. No mention of Iran in either of those titles – his lifelong commitment to Israel is apparently seen as a bit of a problem here, as is the fact that former Ambassador to Moscow William Burns very clearly saw himself as being in charge of Iran policy at State - but it is a big role in relation to Iran that is on Ross’s mind, and now apparently more within his grasp. More background on Ross and his appointment at State may be found at Hillary's envoy: not everyone is cheering and at Iran: Hillary’s envoy (contd.).

Several things strike me about the U.S. efforts to establish and implement a more rational policy towards Iran:

(1) The extent to which the pursuit of the substance of such important matters can be subsumed by driving ambition and personality politics – one is left with the impression that the US national interest comes a long second to establishing oneself as a player and seeing rivals off.

(2) Reflexive support for Israel is such second nature to the American polity that even in an Administration that is starting to question this, giving a key role on Iran to someone like Ross who is so close to the Israelis is not seen as a real problem. As one of Ross’s colleagues remarked to Cohen, “Ross’s bad habit is preconsultation with the Israelis.” Also, according to a financial-disclosure statement, Ross earned $421,775 from speeches last year, of which more than half came from Israeli and Jewish groups. This does not seem to me to be a promising basis for establishing a new relationship with Iran – or even for getting inside the Iranian world view and working out what might be a successful basis for establishing a new relationship.

Needless to say the Iranians are not so laid back about Ross’s appointmtent. When Cohen was in Iran in February, a conservative newspaper editor, Hossein Shariatmadari, told him, “If you want to signal a hard line and no change toward Iran, nobody does that better for you than Ross.”

(3) The consequences for the United States itself of the attitude that countries which earn its displeasure can be frozen out of any communication, so that when at last the U.S. finds itself needing to talk to a country like Iran, it has no-one skilled in the arts and practice of diplomacy who knows anything about the place. There are one or two highly knowledgeable advisers like the Iranian-Americans Ray Takeyh (adviser to Dennis Ross) and Vali Nasr (adviser to Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke), but as Cohen comments about Dennis Ross:

Ross, like almost every serving U.S. diplomat, has never set foot in Iran. Thirty years of severed relations since the 1979 Iranian revolution have put any firsthand experience at a premium.

In Australia the situation is quite different, and so therefore is our capacity and opportunity to engage. We have maintained diplomatic relations with Iran throughout the period since the fall of the Shah, which means that there is a significant handful of Foreign Service and Austrade officers who have served there, and an even larger number of officers who have lived and served there in a more junior capacity. I spent a few days in Iran in July 1978, a few months before the revolution, and have met both émigrés and officials of the new regime since, including dining with then Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati when Tim Fischer hosted a dinner for him in Parliament House during his visit to Australia in 1997. For Australia, Iran is a real country inhabited by real people, not a country of the imagination.

For that reason, the casual vandalism with which the Howard Government threw away years of patient Australian diplomacy by uncritically joining the U.S.-led anti-Iran cheer squad following the invasion of Iraq was a tragedy to behold, and did the U.S. no favours either. Had we maintained our previous level of detachment and balance we could have been a very useful interlocutor in the present circumstances, but we have chosen the role of “running dogs” (to borrow a term from Chinese parlance) and so would have to rebuild any credibility we once had for being an independent player. Unfortunately the present Government shows little sign of wanting to strike out on its own in this field.

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